One of the intriguing aspects of Trayvon Martin’s death is the hermeneutics implicit in Zimmerman’s ‘self-defence’. For those unaware of the story, here is the oversimplified play-by-play: Trayvon Martin, a teenager, was walking from a convenience store through a neighbourhood in the rain wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman, a late-twentysomething civilian neighbourhood watchman, thought Martin was suspicious and phoned the police to report Martin. Zimmerman then, against the recommendations of the police, followed Martin. There was a confrontation which ended with Martin being shot by Zimmerman (who was armed) and Zimmerman having minor injuries. The case was not investigated at the time because Zimmerman claimed self-defence (he said that Martin, a hundred pounds lighter, knocked him to the ground with one punch then began bashing Zimmerman’s head against the pavement).
Florida has a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law which states that people who feel threatened and are not engaged in a criminal activity have the right to use as much force as necessary to protect life and property. This is what Zimmerman used. However, the theological importance here is hermeneutical. Such a law and application of it reflect the general American evangelical ethos of interpretation, namely that of radical subjectivity and situationalism (contrary to their claims to objective and/or absolute truth). Notice that the law is about how one feels — that is, how one interprets one’s situation — and then authorises the person to act as jury (of their interpretation) and executioner (of the offending object). The only objectivity allowed because of this law is how others would act in the same situation, devoid of any relationship to other laws and ethics. In other words, they argue that because representatives of the legal community (police, judges, etc) are unable to see the event unfold firsthand, those legal figures are also unable to reconstruct them accurately. Therefore, it is up to the individual who feels threatened and non-criminal to decide justice.
This is exactly how American evangelicals treat biblical interpretation: since no human living today was there to witness it, there is no way we can reconstruct reliably the biblical narratives and contexts. Therefore, it is up to the individual who feels spiritual to decide its meaning. This is exactly why beliefs such as premillenialism (e.g. Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series, Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth) persist despite scholarly work which has discounted (if not disproven) such. The proponents of these beliefs are, in effect, standing their ground against the threat of the scholarly community. Which is why the scholarly community as a whole is seen with contempt (e.g., they’re not real Christians) because their work which seeks to construct theology and biblical studies through less subjective (though not necessarily objective) means is seen as a threat to the evangelical belief in sola scriptura – radically interpreted to include individual, divergent interpretations — because it means interpretations can be measured and found wanting (we’ll ignore the fact that evangelicals already practise this, though with the understanding that their interpretation is always already ‘correct’). The real threat, perhaps now obvious, is the loss of individual absolute authority over one’s faith to some kind of communal faith (i.e. tradition).
To return to Trayvon Martin, the issue is the same: do individuals have absolute authority to determine that they are threatened and what amount of force is constituted as necessary? States like Florida have argued that individuals do have this authority* to both determine one’s situation as threatened and that no usage of force is too excessive even if the event can be reconstructed to show that both are demonstrably false. As long as Zimmerman remains free without scrutiny, the state of Florida, and perhaps the federal government, believe that individual absolute authority is more important than any kind of social whole such as the state or country which has been created to protect the life, liberty, and property of those who might otherwise be mistreated because of such individual absolute authority. In other words, ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws make it explicit that it is more important for one to feel threatened than for any threat to be proven. They imply that it is more important for one to react with any force necessary to erase such perceived threats than for authorities to protect people’s lives. Or, in the frame of the Trayvon Martin case: it is more important for Zimmerman to be proven as the victim of a non-crime who acted in ‘self-defence’ than for the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law to be revealed for what it is: the authorisation of untrained individuals to perform the duties which were previously reserved for personnel trained in law enforcement.
*NB: Interestingly, police officers acting both on- and off- duty do not normally have this authority. If they shoot someone who they suspect of criminal activity, they are still investigated by other police officers to see if they used excessive force.